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Putting other senses to work when taste is compromised

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:01AM

I poured myself a glass of Jameson Black Barrel whiskey. Sniffed it — nothing. Sipped it — nothing. I had lost my sense of smell and taste. I was ready for dinner.

The day before, with a terrific head cold, I boarded a transatlantic flight. In a pressurized cabin for hours, my head was exploding. After landing in New York to change planes, I couldn’t hear people talking to me, face-to-face, one foot away. I indulged in a Baconator at an airport Wendy’s. I didn’t taste a thing, no grease, no salt, nothing. My sinuses were totally clogged.

Then we had these dinner reservations at Fresco 21 (3500 N. River Rd, Rosemont). My first thought was to reschedule. Then I decided to go. It’d be interesting, I thought, to eat without a sense of taste.

Taste is obviously important, but focusing on flavors, we easily neglect other food-related sensations.

At Fresco 21, an attractive-looking appetizer of Tunisian chicken had a spicy coating. Though I tasted nothing, my tongue tingled, warmly, as though massaged with fine sandpaper.

If I felt more relaxed while eating the ahi tuna in saffron sauce, maybe it’s because saffron — I later learned — has a calming effect. I enjoyed the texture a lot: though I could sense the caramelized crust, I couldn’t taste it.

With steak, though the rich bloody flavor was not mine to enjoy, I did enjoy chewing the lush meat.

During this experiment with taste-free eating, I thought a lot about Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next, perhaps the most lauded of all Chicago chefs.

Achatz temporarily lost his sense of taste during cancer treatments. But his experience was valuable because he was able to experience food in a whole new way as his taste slowly returned.

My brief loss of taste was not nearly as dramatic or serious, but it taught me a lot about all the factors in a meal, besides taste, that one can appreciate.

The next day, I awoke feeling much better. I wondered if the food had something to do with my improved health. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be your medicine, and medicine your food.”

There’s much more to food than taste.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and E-mail

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